The Tree Top Controversy

Scripture can be found here

The fresh-cut tree stood bare in the spacious bay window of the Davidson home.

Within a few hours, by the time darkness had fallen on that mid-December eve,

the tree would glow with hundreds of tiny clear white lights,

and neighbors would pass by, see the tree in the front window, and remark about its beauty.


For now, though, the tree was bare,

waiting for the family to gather in the late afternoon,

the three children home from school, and Beth and Jacob Davidson home from work.

The family tradition was well established.

Beth would make cocoa while Jacob brought the decorations down from the attic.

The three kids, Michael, Debbie, and Emma,

would paw through the dusty boxes of decorations

looking for their favorite Christmas ornaments,

a few store-bought, many more homemade as school or scout projects,

and several very special ornaments

that had survived a couple of generations of family Christmases.

Michael, home from his first semester at college, called those “antiques.”

Jacob and Beth couldn’t disagree,

though having those fragile glass bulbs on their own childhood trees didn’t seem that long ago.


While Jacob and Michael strung the lights,

fifteen year-old Debbie and nine year-old Emma

arranged ornaments by size so that smaller objects went toward the top

and larger things hung on the lower branches.

They also unwound a long tinsel garland,

as well as a paper chain the family had made together before Emma had been born.

Beth poured the cocoa into mugs, delivered the tray to the living room,

taking care not to step on any of the decorations now strewn over the carpet.

Then she sat down to watch Jacob and the kids transform the eight-foot balsam fir

into their strikingly festive symbol of Christmas joy, light, and love.

Beth put her feet up and thought again what a wonderful family time this was.

Usually the family activities she and Jacob planned went awry.

High expectations of warm togetherness were dashed by bickering or complaint.

They’d plan a bike trip, everybody would be excited,

and then the kids would disagree over the route

and be grumpy if they didn’t get their way.

That kind of thing.


But this annual tree trimming time was different.

Beth thought to herself that it must be some special Christmas spirit

that inspired such family peace and joy around that room.


One thing was missing.


Usually the stereo was on and Christmas carols filled the room,

and the Davidsons sang along as they worked.

Beth was so comfortable that she hated to get up,

but everyone else was busy with one job or another around the tree,

that she decided she’d choose the perfect CD for the occasion.

She pulled herself out of the chair, took two steps,

and crunch...

It was an ugly sound, the sound of fragile glass

crushed between a leather sole and the living room carpet.

For some reason, Jacob, Michael, and Deb all looked at young Emma.

She immediately proclaimed her innocence: “I didn’t do it!”


Without even looking down to see what she had crunched, Beth confessed,

and was relieved that she had stepped on an inexpensive ornament

that was of little sentimental value.

“No problem,” she announced.

Turned out, it would be a problem.

Emma helpfully pointed out, “You just broke the very top ornament!”

It had been a rather odd-shaped glass decoration that slipped over the peak of the tree.


“Well, we’ll do without it this year,” Jacob said.

“It’s not like it’s required by the “Martha Stewart Guide to Trimming Holiday Trees.”


Maybe something else could go on top.

and there began the controversy that threatened the little hint of peace on earth

that had been cocoa, Christmas carols, and family cooperation around the tree.


“I know!” Emma called as she headed to her bedroom.

She raced back into the room with a white paper sack

that had been decorated with colored markers and gobs of cotton.

With two eyes drawn on the bag, a red button acting as a nose,

a red cone made out of construction paper serving as a hat,

and a long beard shaped in strands of cotton,

there was no doubt whose head this was: Santa Claus.

“We made these at Scouts, for the old ladies!

It’ll fit right over the very top.”


Michael wanted to know what old ladies,

and older sister Deb said she didn’t want that thing on top of their Christmas tree.

Their Mom explained that it had been a project for the Good Shepherd Home,

and there were some elderly gentlemen there as well as elderly women,

and Beth quickly tried to think of a diplomatic way to turn down Emma’s offer.

The Santa bag was pretty tacky.

“Thank you, Emma, but wouldn’t you rather have that on your bedpost?

Besides, I’m the one who broke the ornament. I should have to replace it.”


Michael never let an opportunity to tease his youngest sister slip by.

He saw his chance and said to Emma,

“Santa Claus is not what this season’s about, anyway.

I wouldn’t want Santa at the top of the tree.”


“Well, too bad then that there are Santa’s all over the tree anyway,” Emma fought back.

She pointed to the boxes of decorations and rightly observed that

there were several representations of “jolly old St. Nick”

carved in wood, painted on glass, and molded in plastic,

all ready to be hung on the Davidson tree.


Michael said, “Yeah, but the top spot ought to be the most important symbol,

not the most commercial.

Old Santa is more about advertising than the true spirit of Christmas.

The only time you see him on TV anymore is to sell soda and tires.

Santa is not the reason for the season.”


The middle child Debbie was often the mediator in these skirmishes

between her big brother and her little sister.

Debbie wasn’t in favor of the Santa sack at the top of the tree either,

but she couldn’t help but offer Emma a little support by saying to Michael,

“It’s amazing how cynical you can get after just one semester of college!

I think Santa Claus is still a good symbol of generosity.

He really was a saint, wasn’t he? St. Nicholas.

In school, they said he was the real patron saint of Russia and Greece.

Weren’t there a lot of stories about how he gave gifts to the poor,

like shoes to children in one country and toys to children somewhere else?”

“I’d rather have the toys than the shoes,” Emma admitted,

handing her Scout project Santa to her Dad.

He didn’t know exactly what to do with it,

and looked to Beth for some help.


“OK,” Beth said, “Emma, that’s one good idea for the top of the tree;

let’s see if we can come up with any others.”


Debbie suggested an angel.

“A lot of people put angels at the top of their trees.

It’s as if an angel were looking down and watching over everything.”


Her Dad said he thought an angel was a good idea.

“If we want a symbol that’s tied into the Christmas story itself, an angel is perfect.

Angels are kept busy in the Old Testament,

serving as mediators between God and people like Hagar, Lot, Abraham, Jacob, and Elijah.”


Beth added, “They also have a habit of announcing to barren women

that babies will be on the way.”

When everyone turned and looked at her, Beth smiled

and assured everyone that that wasn’t a problem for her,

and she hadn’t heard from any angels recently.

“When we read the story of Christmas from Luke’s gospel on Christmas Eve,

we’ll meet an angel who announces that Elizabeth will give birth to John

and Mary will give birth to Jesus.

In Matthew, an angel appears to Joseph twice,

once to tell him to go ahead and marry Mary,

and then, after Jesus is born, to warn him to flee from Herod.”


Emma added that before Jesus’ birth,

an angel appeared to the shepherds in the field, and told them not to be afraid.

Emma quoted the angel exactly and exuberantly: “I bring you good news of great joy!”


“So angels are like God’s announcers,” Michael said.

Putting on his radio voice, Michael summed it up:

“Here’s the news from God...

You’re going to have a baby.

She’s going to have a baby.

A baby has been born!

In Jesus, everybody has a baby!”


Beth added a gentle clarification: that the word angel means “messenger,”

but announcer isn’t bad either, she told her son.

“Then a whole company of messengers joined together in a celestial choir

and sang ‘Joy to the World,’” Deb added.

Again, it was Beth who clarified:

“Glory to God in the highest heaven...”


Every voice in the Davidson living room finished the song,

“and peace on earth...”


[ Why don’t we pause here to sing a carol…about angels: # 31 “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”]


“So, how about putting an angel up there?” Jacob asked.


Michael wasn’t convinced.

“I know angels are “in” these days, but I have another idea.

How about a star for the top of the tree?

The star of Bethlehem shining down on our whole house!

They called Jesus the Light of the World

so I think we should have a symbol of light at the top of the tree,

and not just one of those little light bulbs..”


Emma was rummaging through a box of ornaments and came up with two stars

that previously had hung a little lower on the tree.

“We could put one of these on top; but which one?”


Michael said one looked too much like a sheriff’s badge.

“And the other one’s out because it’s got six points and looks Jewish,

you know, like the Star of David.

That’s not right for a Christmas tree.”


This time is was their father’s turn to provide some clarification.

“Remember, our Bible has two ‘testaments,’ Michael.

And if we want the whole story of Christmas,

we have to go back to the words of the prophets like Isaiah and Micah.

In fact, if I remember right, way back in the book of Numbers,

there’s a verse that says that a star will come out of Jacob.

I remember our choir singing an anthem by Mendelssohn that quoted the verse:

‘There shall a star from Jacob come forth, and a scepter from Israel rise up...’

In other words, a king was prophesied.”


“Jesus?” Emma asked.


“Well, the Messiah certainly,

and that may be why the magi followed a star to Bethlehem.

They were looking for the King of the Jews.”


Beth had another thought.

“There’s a connection with Easter, too, you know.”


“Oh, yeah, Mom...the famous Easter Star,” Michael said with no little sarcasm.


His mother ignored him (kind of) and went on.

“Well, the morning star has some meaning to me on Resurrection morning.

In the last chapter of the Bible, there’s a reference to a star.

Go look it up, Deb.”


The Bible was handy thanks to the Advent devotions the family used at dinner time.

Deb turned to the 22nd chapter of Revelation and looked at the last verses.

“Here it is.”

And with a note of satisfaction in her voice,

she pointed out that the verse mentioned another angel.

“It is I Jesus who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches.

I am the root and descendent of David, the bright morning star.”


Michael saw this as an opportunity to close the deal on the treetop star.

“OK, it’s got history. It’s got tradition. It’s got prophesy.

It’s got the scary old book of Revelation, for cryin’ out loud.

How can we not top the tree with a star?

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never put it out.

What’s that from?”


“John 1,” his Dad answered.


“OK, then, the star it is!” Michael insisted.


[Time for another carol. #56, “The First Noel,” and only verses 1-4, so we don’t get too far ahead of the story.]


Debbie said quietly,

“I thought Mom said since she broke the very top ornament, she’d have to replace it.”


“Let her choose,” Emma piped up.

“Do you want a stupid star, a sappy angel, or the Santa Claus I made just for you?”


“You made it for the old ladies,” Michael said almost under his breath.

“Are you calling Mom an old lady?”


Thus the controversy ensued while cocoa grew cold, the tree remained bare,

and the Christmas music still hadn’t played.


It was time for the father of the family,

the proverbial (but only proverbial) “head of the household” to bring order

to the chaos of this unseemly Christmas controversy.

“All right, everyone. I have an idea.”

He reached into one of the boxes of decorations and pulled out an object

that was carefully wrapped in an old yellowed newspaper.

Beth knew what it was before he unwrapped it.

“Oh, Jacob, not that!”


“Why not? It stood at the top of my family’s tree every Christmas when I was a kid.”


“What is it?” the children said almost in unison.

Jacob took away the last of the crumpled newspaper

and proudly held up a plastic figure of ... what?

“An angel!” Deb said with glee.


“No,” Beth said. “It’s Mary.”

“Remember, your Dad was a Catholic before we got married,

and his family put Mary at the top of the tree.”


Michael was disappointed in the way things were going now.

“These days,” he said, “you’d have to put Joseph up there, too,

to be ‘inclusive.’”


Jacob came to his own defense.

“Mary is the mother of Jesus.

The handmaid of the Lord.

The perfect example of a willing servant of God who says to the angel,

‘Let it be with me according to your word.’

Her life gets completely turned upside down by Gabriel’s message.”


You’re going to have a baby!” Michael boomed in his announcer’s voice.


Jacob went on.

“Then she sings the Magnificat.

That’s the song that starts, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord...’

Here’s where gentle Mary turns radical, even subversive.”

(Jacob had his college son’s full attention now.)

She sings that the child in her womb will turn the world upside down.

He will disturb and disrupt the status quo,

scattering the proud, bringing down the powerful, lifting the lowly and filling the hungry.

In a way, I’ve always thought that maybe she knew

that her son wouldn’t so much turn the world upside down,

but more like turn it right side up, the way the world was created to be in the first place.

It is Mary’s offering to God... to bring into the world a cute baby

who would become a suffering servant and King of Kings.”


“So, that’s my choice for the top of the tree.

Still, Emma has a point.

Beth, you crunched the very top decoration. You should replace it.”


[Maybe this would be a good time to sing a carol that mentions Mary. This is a newer one, called

“Born in the Night,” # 30.]


Everyone looked at Beth,

but before she had a chance to respond,

Michael offered one more suggestion.

“Look, Mary looks a little like an angel;

we could glue a star to her and everybody would be happy,

except Emma, so every other day, we could put the Santa sack over Mary’s head.

But that wouldn’t be a great symbol for the holiday, would it?”


“I am ready to announce my decision,” Beth said firmly.

“Everyone take your cocoa mugs into the kitchen and zap them in the microwave.

Give me five minutes, and come back to the living room.”


When the family returned,

there was no Santa atop the tree;

there was no angel, no Mary, no star.

There was a greenish-blueish ball hung just under a light

that Beth had adjusted at the very top.

There was a hint of disappointment in Emma’s voice as she asked what that was up there.


Michael recognized it. “It’s the ‘earth ball,”


Jacob remembered that it had come with a magazine subscription a couple of years ago.

It was a Christmas ball that looked like Planet Earth.

The kids were under-whelmed.

“Peace on earth,” Beth whispered.

“And good will in all of earth’s families,” Jacob added.

“For God so loved the world,” Michael said with a light in his eye.

“So much that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him may not perish,

but have eternal life,” Deb said angelically.


Beth had opened a hymnal while the cocoa heated,

and she read a verse from a contemporary hymn:               (Timothy Dudley-Smith)

“He comes to us in love

as once he came by flesh and blood and birth;

to bear within our mortal frame,

a life, a death, and saving name,

for every child of earth,

for every child of earth.”


He comes in truth when faith is grown;

believed, obeyed, adored;

the Christ in all the Scriptures shown,

as yet unseen, but not unknown,

our Savior and our Lord,

our Savior and our Lord.


Emma held up her Santa sack, on her hand like a puppet,

looked it in the eye, and said, “Back to the bedpost, Santa.

You’ll be happy there.

The world is in the best place for Christmas!”


I know I don’t have to say this, but I will anyway:

what’s on top of the tree at Christmas doesn’t matter all that much.

It’s what’s deepest in your heart.

That’s all that matters when it comes to having a Merry Christmas

and an exceptionally good life.

Is it just the childlike wonder of myth and legend,

of Santas and Rudolphs and gaily wrapped presents under the tree?

Or, is it the in-breaking of God’s messengers

announcing good news to unlikely people?

Is it the power of light shining in dark places,

overcoming enshadowed lives with hope and fulfillment?

Is it the inspiration of the woman some call the first disciple,

Mary, servant of the Lord, and model of faithfulness?

Is it the surprising love of God that is born among us,

taking on flesh that we might take on Spirit

and become all that God has planned for us?


The story I’ve offered today is not very profound.

But what we do with Christmas can change our lives.

What we do with Christ can change the world.

Isn’t that the point?


We can close with a carol that sings of angels bending near the earth…singing ‘Peace on earth…’

and the whole world echoing their song.”


#38 “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear”